Elements in nature can be beautiful, serene, and enlightening, but during our summer sojourns we can encounter many minor first-aid situations. The boreal forest is filled with plants that can be used for both food and medicine, but foraging for wild plants takes planning and preparation.
The weather changes rapidly in the North, so dress in layers. Wear appropriate footwear and bring water, snacks, a small first-aid kit, matches or a lighter, and bear deterrent. Depending on where you’re going, you may also want to pack a map, compass, or GPS device.
You’ll also need basic foraging supplies and equipment. I generally use paper bags, a bucket, or a basket, depending on what I’m gathering. I find paper bags are the most convenient because they fold up and initially occupy less room. Take a sharp knife, garden clippers, or hand pruners, as well as a shovel or hand spade for digging roots. Gloves are a good idea if you’ll be handling stems with thorns, and an accurate field guide that identifies northern plants is very helpful.
Before you start gathering plants, it’s important to make some keen observations. Begin by assessing the area where you intend to gather plants: is it clean and free of pollutants? Busy roadways and industrial areas often provide easy access to many medicinal and food plants, but the soil and plants in these spaces can be saturated with toxins and chemicals that do more harm than good.
When out on herb walks with curious harvesters, I’m often asked, “How do you know an animal hasn’t peed on the plants?” The answer is, “They don’t taste like salt!” It’s good to sample the plants you’re gathering to make sure they’re clean. When you’re ready to test,observe the plant. Be positive of its identification so you don’t confuse it with a toxic plant that may look similar. If in doubt, pick a sample and bring it to an expert in your community, such as an Elder, botanist, plant biologist, or herbalist.
It’s important when foraging to walk softly on the earth and gather plants with respect. Observe the plant community you’re planning to pick from: is it healthy and vibrant, or are there only one or a few plants growing? Don’t over-harvest; allow for future growth. Leave enough behind that the plant community can continue with vitality.
Herb is a term that refers to the whole plant, including leaves, flowers, stems, seeds, and sometimes roots. The entire herb can be harvested while the plant is in flower. If the flower is not going to be used, then the herb can be gathered before the flowers emerge, but after the leaves have appeared. (This is when the plant will be most potent.)
The aerial parts of plants (leaves, stems, and flowers) grow above ground. Flowers and leaves are generally high in volatile oils that can be captured if the plant is picked at the optimal time. The best time to gather the aerial parts of plants is in the morning, after the plants have rested and before the heat of the day evaporates their volatile oils. The midday sun temporarily wilts the plant’s energy, yet it also draws oils and resins into aerial parts. Because of this some herbalists suggest evening harvesting. As you become familiar with plants, you’ll better understand the best time to gather them. The optimum time to gather leaves is when they’re fresh, young, tender, and full of energy, oils, and juices.
Flowers are gathered just before, or as they are, fully expanded and in the pubescent stage, when their colour, aroma, and volatile oils are most potent. If you miss this stage, pick when they’re wide open and at their peak.
The best time to gather conifer tips is when they emerge as fresh, juicy, new-sprout greens—do this quickly because this stage does not last long. Tree buds, such as those of the balsam poplar, emerge in late autumn and can be gathered anytime, but I’ve observed they have the highest resin content in the early spring.
Roots can be gathered in the spring before leaves start developing and before the plant goes into flower or in the autumn after flowering is finished. Be sure to leave plenty of rootstock so plants will continue flourishing.
Fruits and berries should be gathered when they’re ripe. Cranberries, rosehips, and crowberries are better picked after the first light frost—this makes them sweeter. Seeds can be gathered when they’re fully ripened. Dry seeds in a basket as they require very little drying.
Bark can be gathered in the spring or late autumn. In most cases, it’s the inner bark that’s used. If you’re using the outer bark, you can harvest this at anytime. Never strip around a tree as this will kill it. It’s best to prune a branch instead of cutting into the trunk.
Pitch can be harvested anytime. I like gathering spruce pitch in the winter when it’s frozen because it isn’t so sticky and it’s a bit easier to work with. If your fingers get sticky from pitch or plant resins, use a bit of vegetable oil or butter to rub it off. Sap is harvested in the spring when it’s flowing freely through the tree.